Historic China payload to fly on International Space Station

Tropical Storm Bill in the Gulf of Mexico is seen approaching the coast of Texas in this picture from NASA astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station taken June 15, 2015.

Tropical Storm Bill in the Gulf of Mexico is seen approaching the coast of Texas in this picture from NASA astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station taken June 15, 2015.  (REUTERS/NASA/Handout )

NanoRacks, a Houston-based aerospace company, will fly the first Chinese commercial payload to the International Space Station. The company will partner with scientists from the Beijing Institute of Technology to study the effects of microgravity on DNA. 

This comes as no small feat given that China has been accused of hacking U.S. government agencies and pursuing a policy of military space dominance during the two years it took to negotiate the deal.

Chinese scientists have been involved in NASA projects in the past, notably the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which was attached to the International Space Station during the final space shuttle mission. But a 2011 budgetary stipulation known as the Wolf Amendment has precluded NASA from cooperating with China or any Chinese-owned company on new space-related endeavors until the People’s Republic improves its human rights record and reduces espionage efforts against the U.S.  

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Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks’ managing director, told from Scotland that “There are no flags here. This is not China and the U.S. reaching an agreement.”

He said the data will flow to the NanoRacks control center, rather than to China, and that the experiment, set to fly to the ISS next year, will be housed in the space station’s Japanese module. 

“We have a world class researcher who upholds the values of the West and the honor of the U.S. National Lab,” Manber said.

“This is significant because they did not seek to override the law, but to obey it.”

But Rep. John Culberson, R-TX, says he wants to make sure there are no red flags in the deal.

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“China must be kept out of our space program,” Culberson, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, which has jurisdiction over NASA, said in a statement. “They have been waging an aggressive cyberwar against the United States for many years, and continue to steal vast amounts of personal information and intellectual property from individual Americans and American companies….

“I view the NanoRacks deal as an effort to bypass the federal law prohibiting NASA from interacting with China, so I am examining the deal very closely.”

The Office of Science and Technology Policy does not play a formal role in determining research conducted on the ISS. However, the administration has deemed the project compliant under the law, according to NanoRacks.

In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found OSTP violated the Wolf Amendment by conducting bilateral discussions with China despite the ban.   

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NanoRacks has a Space Act Agreement with NASA that allows it to self-fund research hardware and facilities as part of the U.S. National Lab and to market those facilities commercially. The company has a permanent microgravity space lab on the space station.

Of the total science utilization capacity on the U.S. side of the space station, half is allocated for National Lab projects. The other half is for NASA-sponsored taxpayer-funded projects.

NanoRacks has flown payloads from a variety of countries, including Vietnam, Peru and the United Kingdom. Other clients range from NASA to high schools.

All experiments must go through a NASA safety review before being launched to the ISS and be granted permission onto the station by member nations.

According to NASA’s International Space Station Utilization Statistics from 1998 to September 2014, there were 1,765 new scientific investigations from 83 different countries in biology, biotechnology, earth and space science, education, human research, physical science and technology conducted on the ISS. 

Manber, a former official in the U.S. Commerce Department who helped forge Russian and U.S. space cooperation during the Reagan administration, says “we won’t know for years” about the long-term impact of this experiment, but he has high hopes for the future of business in space.  

“As the research comes to the fore, jobs are created,” Manber said. “My dream is that space become just another place to do business.”